Review: Baby Reindeer

Screen reviews by Christopher Gist

This is the one about the emerging comedian, Richard Gadd, and his reports of being stalked. Gadd created, wrote, and stars in this “bioseries” as Donny Dunn, a wannabe stand-up and competent barman who  serves a cup of tea to a woman who makes grand claims about her life but hasn’t the price of a tea. After being shown this kindness, the woman, Martha Scott in the series, attaches herself to Donny, quickly becoming his 24/7 stalker.

First, the controversies. Gadd famously describes receiving 41,071 emails, 744 tweets, 350 hours of voicemail, 106 pages of letters, and 46 Facebook messages from the woman he refers to as his stalker in real life; after the show aired and hit Netflix’stop spot in 30 countries, The Daily Mail had some communications with a woman who denied she was the stalker character, and who reportedly said that she was now being harassed online by various people*.  

One of the other key controversies turns on the identity of a character in the drama who sexually abuses Donny. In real life, a colleague of Gadd’s has tweeted “Police have been informed and are investigating all defamatory abusive and threatening posts against me”. Gadd has asked viewers not to speculate on who the real-life characters may be. While numerous commentators have doubted the likelihood of ever euthanising human curiosity, my own experience of being involved in biopics suggests that, no matter how many “composite characters” are created, it is reasonable for the production team to anticipate that some people may want to associate themselves with the story. The fact is, bringing histories to life on television stirs up emotions.

And Baby Reindeer gets very emotional indeed. Donny’s stalker, Martha Scott, is played memorably by Jessica Gunning. Both Martha and Donny run the full field of emotions as they connect, separate, and reconnect in increasingly fraught encounters. There is some beautiful, poetic, writing in this show: Martha tells Donny that, of course she’s going to be drawn to him after he “sings into a woman’s soul” the way he does.

The series also has one of the most touching father/son scenes I have seen in drama. A moment of family crisis takes Donny back home to Scotland after Martha embroils his parents in her attacks. Amanda Root and Mark Lewis Jones deserve particular mention here as Donny’s mum and dad who, after first being presented to us as fairly familiar parental characters, turn our understanding on its head. Lewis Jones is first seen as an emotionally-withholding father who doesn’t hug his son or say much in the way of endearments, and then, in a tiny number of words in one pivotal moment, inverts our understanding of this small family’s world.  It is a lesson in how understated performance and writing can evoke enormous feeling.

While there are many frames through which to look at this series, the one that particularly captured us was Donny – or Gadd’s – attempt to explain himself, often to himself. He examines his talent, his ambition, his failure to connect in relationships, his sexuality, his drug use, his emptiness. He is groomed, and he goes back. He rejects Martha, and he goes back. He brings danger to his landlady and moves out but, inevitably, goes back. Donny’s behaviour is increasingly exposing and the accompanying voice-over is confessional, enacting the kind of self-analysis that tends to be more the preserve of the novel (Herzog comes to mind).  

While the show is clearly about Donny, the title Baby Reindeer reminds us that a significant part of the story is fuelled by Martha and her commentary on Donny. At one point she says he’s reminiscent of a baby reindeer toy she had as a child but, here, I feel the poetry falters. I wanted more backgrounding of Martha beyond the explainer that she took refuge as a child in her reindeer toy while her parents fought endlessly. Given that the revelation of self has, for Gadd, been an unexpected drawcard (as it has for one or two other comedians in recent years), it’s not clear why a key character like Martha isn’t accessed further in a way that could deepen our understanding of the why these charged relationships grow. 

Baby Reindeer is one of a small number of series we have binged in one or two nights (Red Eye being another recent streamer series that kept us watching). As you can tell, the light-hearted start does lead to some dark times for Donny Dunn, but this is a strongly constructed series that, I’m sure, will be a landmark moment in Gadd’s screen career

* Further details can be found here.